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[Herald Interview] Will inter-Korean detente continue after Olympics?

    The PyeongChang Winter Olympics have brought about a rare detente between the two Koreas after years of military confrontations over Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missiles programs. The two Koreas created a unified women’s ice hockey team and marched under a unified flag. North Korea even invited President Moon Jae-in for a summit in the North’s capital.

Yet, with less than a week to go before the Olympics end, there are concerns the Olympic detente will dissipate with the Winter Games closing ceremony. Skeptics have cautioned that cross-border tensions could rise again when South Korea and the US resume their joint military drills after the Olympics.

The Korea Herald contacted five prominent US security scholars --Gary Samore, Sue Mi Terry, Patrick Cronin, Ken Gause and Mike Mazarr – about their views.

Gary Samore is executive director for research at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and former presidential adviser on arms control and nonproliferation.

Patrick Cronin is senior director of the Asia Program at the Center for a New American Security, while Sue Mi Terry is a senior fellow and Korea chair at Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at the Center for Naval Analyses, and Mike Mazarr, senior political scientist and associate director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program at the Arroyo Center, RAND Corp.

Here is what they had to say on how they see things unfolding on the Korean Peninsula after the Olympics.

South Korea`s President Moon Jae-in shakes hands with North Korea`s nominal head of state Kim Young-nam at opening reception ceremony for PyeongChang Olympics on Feb. 9.
South Korea`s President Moon Jae-in shakes hands with North Korea`s nominal head of state Kim Young-nam at opening reception ceremony for PyeongChang Olympics on Feb. 9.

Korea Herald: What strategies do you think the Trump administration would pursue after the Olympics?

Sue Mi Terry: I think the Trump administration will continue to maintain a strategy of increasing pressure and deterrence even after the Olympics. Despite the sports diplomacy that occurred during the Olympics, the North Koreans have signaled no fundamental change in their stance towards denuclearization and therefore the Trump administration has little reason to change their current strategy.

If the US does impose new tough sanctions on North Korea that would certainly make it harder for Pyongyang to agree to direct talks with Washington. However, based on what Vice President Mike Pence said to the Washington Post, it sounds like the Trump administration believes that engaging in direct talks with North Korea without preconditions and imposing additional sanctions are not necessarily mutually exclusive actions.

Patrick Cronin: There is only one administration strategy, and it was developed in the early months of 2017. That strategy focuses on trying to roll back North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs through the use of pressure and engagement. 

The diplomatic, military and economic pressure will continue to increase until such time North Korea shows a genuine willingness to discuss denuclearization and takes concrete steps to halt the buildup of its nuclear arsenal. 

If Kim Jong-un is interested in freezing his nuclear and missile tests, for instance, then I believe that would be conducive to exploring reciprocal steps, such as halting further pressure for a time. So US tactics will be calibrated to North Korea’s moves, but the strategy will remain the same.

Gary Samore: I believe that President Moon and President Trump have agreed on a joint diplomatic strategy to intensify pressure on North Korea while seeking to continue North-South talks and begin US-North Korea negotiations.

As part of that strategy, Moon will offer to travel to Pyongyang to hold a summit with Kim Jong-un if North Korea agrees to continue an informal moratorium on nuclear and missile testing and agrees to begin negotiations with the US on denuclearization and peace regime.  

Seoul and Washington are also probably prepared to extend the delay on the Foal Eagle joint military exercises as long as Pyongyang continues to refrain from testing. Washington will try to convince Beijing and Moscow to keep UN sanctions in place while the US-North Korea talks are underway.

KH: Do you think North Korea will return to a provocation cycle if South Korea and the US resume joint military drills? In that case, how do you think the US would respond?

Terry:  I think there is likely to be a negative reaction from North Korea if Pyongyang requests that the US-ROK (South Korea) exercises be canceled and the Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercises continue as scheduled without any modifications.

If the same pattern of North Korean missile testing occurs in 2018 then the US will likely turn to a stronger form of deterrence, including sending more military assets to the region, and will impose even greater economic pressure through secondary sanctions.

The “bloody nose strike” option (of a pre-emptive attack) is not likely to be carried out because there has been quite a bit of public opposition voiced against this potential action in the last few weeks and it is very unpopular in the US.

Cronin: I think it is likely that North Korea will resume nuclear and missile testing. Kim has given the world no reason to believe he will forego a nuclear-armed missile force to guarantee his survival. He also would like to leverage nuclear weapons for coercing neighbors and dividing the US-ROK alliance. 

But Kim is also interested in sanctions relief. If China and Russia truly enforced existing sanctions, Pyongyang might prove even more willing to track back to some diplomatic framework like the six-party talks.

However, if North Korea persists with nuclear and missile programs, or other provocations, then I would expect a call for yet another UN Security Council resolution that seeks more restrictions on energy trade and maritime interdiction.

Ken Gause: If the US and North Korea cannot come to some sort of agreement (which assumes that President Moon’s attempt at mediation has failed), it is likely that the joint military drills will continue. This most likely means that North Korea will continue to test its missile program, which will lead to more sanctions.

As to the nature of the sanctions, it will include additional sanctions on individuals and companies. I don’t think it will lead to a maritime blockade, although the inspections regime of North Korea and third-party ships will likely be enhanced.

It is hard to see the US conducting a bloody nose strategy without being provoked. Therefore, the US will likely continue to put pressure on North Korea. If The North responds by taking kinetic action against US or ROK assets, it will give the US an excuse to execute the bloody nose strategy.

Mike Mazarr: I would anticipate after the Olympics seeing fairly active South Korean and North Korean efforts to generate an ongoing dialogue leading eventually to a summit, as proposed by Kim Jong-un.  My guess is that Seoul would make efforts to keep military exercises from being too provocative. 

North Korea will respond with some rhetoric, but as long as it’s fairly standard-issue, and as long as the private North-South dialogues continue in a businesslike way, it shouldn’t derail things. That’s a guess and much could go wrong, but again both sides now have powerful incentives not to drift apart.

During this period I would not expect North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile or nuclear tests, though it might engage in some tests of shorter-range missiles or other actions in protest of the exercises.

KH: If North Korea suspends its provocations even after the resumption of ROK-US joint military drills, what are the next steps the US should take?

Terry: If North Korea suspends its provocations during and after the ROK-US military exercises, and clearly communicates to the US that it has suspended missile tests in order to give direct talks a chance, then the US and North Korea should explore a meeting between high-level officials to test intentions for further dialogue.

Cronin: Affirming that Pyongyang would not conduct a nuclear test or launch missiles -- or at least longer-range missiles -- for a period of time would deserve to be met with some restraint. But North Korea cannot expect more than symbolic or token gestures unless it is willing to do more than provide symbolic or token gestures. 

As a practical matter, there is a variety of adjustments that might be made to joint military exercises. For instance, strategic bombers are deemed by Kim to be provocative, and if he were willing to freeze his nuclear tests then we might look at holding back strategic bombers from exercises or shows of force. 

But this next step would only be temporary on both sides, so the real question is whether North Korea is willing to enter into serious diplomacy, the end point of which would be denuclearization -- however long that would take.

Gause: The US should explore ways to engage seriously with North Korea without precondition. This means exploring ways to get NK to freeze its program -- no tests, no proliferation and no provocation -- in exchange for economic and security guarantees.

Samore: Seoul and Washington are also probably prepared to extend the delay on the Foal Eagle joint military exercises as long as Pyongyang continues to refrain from testing.  Washington will try to convince Beijing and Moscow to keep UN sanctions in place while the US-North Korea talks are underway.

Will Kim Jong-un agree to this package? I don’t know, but there are signs that Kim is looking to shift to a diplomatic phase.  After two years of heavy nuclear and missile testing, North Korea has made substantial progress toward achieving a long range missile capability that can attack the US directly, but it has also paid a high price in terms of economic sanctions.

KH: What do you see as the intention behind North Korea’s proposal of an inter-Korean summit? What is your overall assessment of President Moon Jae-in’s policy of pursuing dialogue with the North?

Terry: I think North Korea’s summit proposal is likely intended to create a split between the US and South Korea on North Korea policy. However, I think that as long as the US and South Korea maintain close coordination and communication on this front, and as long as neither country engages in unilateral action, then the North Korean plan will not have its intended effect.

Gause: North Korea’s motives for the charm campaign are twofold: 1) drive a wedge between the US and South Korea and 2) relieve the economic pressure caused by the sanctions.

Cronin: The Trump administration trusts President Moon, but it does not trust Kim Jong-un. Washington is reassured by Blue House assurances that it will hold to the pressure strategy while seeking serious engagement opportunities that include denuclearization. 

Certainly, Kim would like to drive a wedge between the allies and among the outside powers in general, but driving a wedge presupposes that Kim can convince the world he is interested in something other than a nuclear missile buildup.

Many in the media are swift to see Kim as winning propaganda points, but I assure you this propaganda windfall will backfire if Kim reverts to nuclear brinkmanship. In other words, the free world is hopeful but not blind; it wants peace, not appeasement. At least, this is the common position of the governments in Seoul, Washington, Tokyo and elsewhere.

Mazarr: I have been very impressed with President Moon’s careful tightrope-walking, leaving open the room for dialogue with the North while sustaining a strong alliance with the US. He seems very aware of the need to keep a balanced policy and avoid actions that will be perceived as giving in to North Korean demands without any payback.  Very few people in Seoul or Washington are anxious for that again.

Ultimately a very big question is whether North Korea is prepared to offer any concessions in its nuclear program as part of a series of gradual agreements. We have little evidence that it is, and it’s not clear what precisely it could agree to; a freeze on testing might be one idea but I am not convinced they have completed all the testing they might need for high confidence in their deterrent. 

Certainly they won’t want limits on the size of their force and the inspections that would have to go with them. Absent any meaningful North Korean concessions on that point, though, we are headed toward some sort of a crisis.

KH: President Moon said he would have a summit with North Korea “under right conditions.” what would be the right conditions for the US? And what would be the right conditions for North Korea?

Terry: The right conditions for the US would be North Korean agreement to return to talks about denuclearization.

Gause: The right conditions for the US would be for North Korea to be willing to discuss denuclearization. The right conditions for NK is to engage without precondition.

In other words, the requirements on both sides do not overlap. This means that both sides need to make compromises. That is why I see the freeze as the only way forward. North Korea gets to keep its nuclear program, but short of a demonstrated capability to strike the United States.

Cronin: The right condition would include an indication that Pyongyang is interested in reversing its current trajectory of a nuclear-armed missile buildup. The US is supportive of South Korean diplomacy, but it does not want President Moon to appear weak by making unilateral concessions. There ought to be reciprocity. 

At the same time, North Korea could seek security assurances from outside powers, including China and the United States. To reiterate, the relief from a pressure strategy would be pegged to the specific steps taken by North Korea.

Mazarr: Once a new round of contacts and dialogues begins ... the message from Seoul might be a bit tougher than Pyongyang would hope for or anticipate. I would guess that the Moon administration would make very clear that it is not removing any sanctions, e.g. the status of the Kaesong industrial park, without real progress toward denuclearization.

KH: Do you think that there is a diplomatic discord between South Korea and US in their approach to dealing with North Korea?

Terry: There are some differences in their approach toward North Korea because they are both sovereign countries with their own domestic interests and national security interests that must be considered, but as long as the two allies maintain close coordination and communication I don’t think those differences will become a major problem.

Cronin: I think democracy is based on the freedom to disagree and that there is a range of perspectives in the Moon and Trump administrations as well as between them. 

However, I am confident that both governments are working on a common strategy. There is a deliberate division of labor and attempts to divide the allies will fail.

Gause: There are some differences in strategy, although both subscribe to the same goal -- denuclearization. There could also be some differences in how to begin the engagement process.

The US wants North Korea to show concrete steps toward denuclearization before engagement can begin. The ROK appears to believe that engagement without precondition could be a way forward as long as the ultimate goal remains denuclearization. I tend to support the ROK position since the US position seems to be a nonstarter.

KH: Do you think the US should talk with North Korea without preconditions? Or focus on pursuing maximum pressure campaign?

Terry: I think the US could talk to NK without preconditions in order to help lower tensions and to see if any additional information can be gained about their nuclear capabilities and intentions. 

However, without a fundamental shift in North Korea’s calculus about their nuclear program the talks will probably not make much progress. This will leave the US without much choice but to pursue the same “maximum pressure and engagement” strategy.

Gause: I absolutely do believe the US and NK should talk without preconditions. Diplomacy is the art of the possible, not the art of the perfect. The US position is untenable and has been since the early 1990s. NK is not about to give up its nuclear program.

Therefore, the smart move by the US is to figure out what can be done to prevent NK from securing a viable nuclear program with an ability to strike the US homeland. This can only be achieved by engagement or the military option. I prefer the former to the calamity that could come with the latter.

Cronin: Yes. We should never be afraid to talk. And in fact, the administration has maintained channels of communication with North Korea.

But talking does not tell us at what level engagement might occur. Talking alone should not imply that the US will desist from building pressure on a Kim regime bent on deploying ICBMs. The pressure relief valve is controlled by North Korean actions in the direction of peace.  After a 65-year cold war, laying a foundation for peace will take more than words.